Mental health funding for SD43 students urged

Plea made to standing committee on finances

After years of approaching the provincial government with cap in hand, School District 43 may now be in a more powerful position to state its case for more funding even though it has a budget surplus and one of the most successful international education programs in the province.

This week SD43 released a five-page briefing calling for more funding, particularly for vulnerable students.

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Presented before the province's all-party Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services, the brief points out that SD43 is the third largest in the province, with one of the most diverse and complex student populations, yet remains near the bottom for per-student funding.

The brief also points out some anomalies such as Richmond school district receiving double the amount of funding for programs for at-risk youth even though its vulnerable student population is a third the size of SD43's ($4,145.27 in per student funding went to Richmond with only 517 students identified on the Social Service Index compared to $2,086.31 per student for SD43 with 1,200 SSI students.)

Port Moody trustee Kerry Palmer Isaak who presented the brief said while similar points have been expressed in the past, the district hopes this will be the year that changes will be made to education funding.

"We really want to drive attention to the fact while we have been promoted to the third lowest (funded district) in the province we are the third largest district. We are asking to be promoted to average," Isaak said.

She said SD43 per-student funding still lags behind other districts at $7,158 per student compared to a provincial average of $7,218 and funding for lunches and after school programs for vulnerable youth hasn't kept up with the growth in the number of kids needing help.

Mental health concerns among students is also worrying with an estimate of 3,000 students needing extra supports who aren't getting them.

Palmer Isaak said she's hearing from families that anxiety is a huge issue for children, but more debilitating conditions are also a problem, resulting in greater numbers of hospitalizations and challenges reintroducing students back into the classroom.

Isaak said the district has proposed a pilot program to help students facing challenges, including the hiring of a staff person who would coordinate mental health programs and make them more consistent across the district.
It could be a model for other school districts, Isaak said, but there has been no word from the Ministry of Education.

"If the students are not able to attend, how do we support them with academics and social success — it's a fundamental part," Palmer Isaak said. "I'm hoping they will take a hard look at our program," she added.

Coquitlam Teachers' Association acting president Ken Christensen agreed that mental health issues are a growing concern among students and teachers at SD43 schools.

"This is a difficult issue to address for a classroom teacher and the talented resources that exist that do address this, like counsellors, you have counsellors stretched very thin."

But Christensen said increased funding would make a difference for many of these issues, including helping teachers deal with students who have special education needs.

This complaint about inadequate funding has been made for years and is being made again even though SD43 has an operating surplus — pegged at $6.5 million at the end of the 2015/'16 school year.

However, the brief argues that the district shouldn't suffer because it's doing a good job of managing its finances noting that a demand for equity and fairness is being made on principle and because of need.

"SD43 is significantly underfunded to effectively deliver education services that are mandated by the Ministry of Education and needed and demanded by our community," the brief states.

In fact, SD43 may have more credibility now that its financial house is in order and, now that the province has posted a $2 billion surplus, and a provincial election is in the offing, this may be the year the district's complaints are actually heard.

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